Food, Glorious Japanese Food

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

My host father was an executive of a bread company. Periodically he brought crates of extra bread home from work. It was the most wonderful and unusual experience for me because, although there were some breads I was familiar with, many of the items were completely different from anything I’d previously experienced. I loved one particular bread stuffed with red bean paste. It became a favorite staple of mine during my time in Japan. But there were all sorts of other breads totally different from those I’d encountered in the U.S…. it was as if the baker decided that, say, an omelet needed to be made into bread. Or that people really needed to have their sausage and eggs squeezed into the bread itself rather than simply sitting on top of a biscuit the same old way I’d always seen it. I came to imagine that the baker in charge of those creations must certainly look like a nutty professor, Einstein, or something equally as wonderful. There were normal items like muffins and Danishes. However, those “normal” breads in the crates my host father maneuvered through the door, while delicious, were not nearly as sweet or messy as those I’ve tasted in the U.S. I would have to say that, overall, the sweets in Japan were never nearly as sweet as they are in the U.S., but somehow they were always more satisfying, gratifying, and delicious!

I wasn’t allowed much of the bread at home. My host mother would let me have one or two and then she bagged it up and put it out of sight. She was a wonderful mother to me. She treated me almost exactly the same way she treated her oldest daughter. My host sister, the older of my two sisters, was pudgy by Japanese standards (which I did not understand at all because she was beautiful in my eyes). My host mother rationed food to both of us. I was quite fat by Japanese standards, even though I was nearing the thinnest I’d been in my life. I didn’t mind because I knew she loved me and wanted me to be better. I looked forward to the times that my host father brought bread home, though, because the next day my host mother would fill my bike’s basket with bags of bread. She directed me sternly to share all that she gave me with my friends at school. I definitely shared it, but I was also able to eat a couple more of those wonderful breads!

My experiences eating out were wonderful, embarrassing, and hilarious. The first time I went to a restaurant, I picked up one of the packaged foods in the display case and brought it to the cashier. I was quickly informed by my gaijin friend, who just wanted to laugh at me, that I wasn’t supposed to buy the display. I was just supposed to choose what I wanted from what was in the display. The cashier laughed behind her hand at me and the workers behind the counter turned to hide their smiles. It certainly must have been funny to see a chubby, blonde, gaijin trying to buy fake food. I learned quickly that most of the food displays in Japan are examples of what you can get; you’re not meant to touch them – much less try to buy them!

Okonomiyaki became my favorite food in Japan. I ate it anywhere and everywhere I went as much as I could. I purchased it from one of the small shops at the Hirakata-shi shopping center, which was nearly on top of the train station I traveled through most frequently. I preferred my cabbage pancake with octopus, but I would eat any version with relish. I liked it best with Japanese mayonnaise and this special brown sauce mixed together and slathered on top. I could easily eat two at any given time (not because I was that hungry or could hold that much food, just because they were that delicious!).

My host family did their best to expose me to various Japanese fares. My host mom prepared Chinese food at home, for the most part. She took cooking classes and created luscious dishes. One of my favorites was a tiny eggplant practically drowned in, what I later learned, was oyster sauce. She made sure to expose me to traditional dishes like soup with raw egg on top. She also made sure we had the dish in which you cook your own food in boiling water and eat it with rice. They did prepare okonomiyaki at home once and I thought I would die of pleasure right then and there! My family took me to a Korean barbeque restaurant and “tricked” me into eating cow’s tongue. Normally, I am very squeamish about things like that, but I’d already eaten it, loved it, and exclaimed as much – so when they revealed what I’d just eaten I momentarily balked and then smiled, laughed, and again exclaimed about how yummy it was. They gave me more and I happily ate it!

My host family also took me to a Chinese restaurant and a pay-by-the-plate restaurant. Now, by the time I went to the pay-by-the-plate restaurant, I’d already been to a number of restaurants with conveyor belt service. In the restaurants with conveyor belt service, there is usually a counter around the chef or one that goes from the kitchen to the outside of the establishment. A majority of the restaurants I’d visited on my own and with friends charged a flat fee for as many plates as you could eat within a certain time period (usually an hour). I had absolutely no clue that we would have to pay for the food based on how much we ate (and no one told me!). So, I ate and drank until I was quite satisfied, even a bit full, and then realized to my horror the reality of my situation. I had at least 20 plates! I don’t know how much my host parents paid for that dinner, but I know I will forever be more cautious when dining!

As a last note, if ever the opportunity arises, make sure you buy Melty Kisses. I’ve always loved chocolate, but I will forever dream about Melty Kisses, which are pretty much little square truffles that melt in your mouth. I was so lucky to be in Japan during the fall semester for myriad reasons, but particularly because I would never have tasted the most splendid chocolate to ever pass my lips if I’d attended school during the spring or summer terms because they only sell them during the winter. Melty Kisses are much like my husband’s homemade truffles, but because of the emotional significance of those packaged pieced of heaven, no matter how my sweetie perfects his concoction, they will always be second best! One of my dear Japanese friends brought two packages to me when she came for my wedding and I cried. It was an unexpected, yet treasured chance to taste the wonderful treats one final time. I made those morsels last. I think I ate my last bite two or three months after receiving the box!

Location, Location, Location

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

My university, Kansai Gaidai Daigaku, was about half-way between Osaka and Kyoto. I didn’t realize the benefit of that location until I was actually in Japan. I was truly lucky to have chosen such a perfect place (I hadn’t researched any schools; I’d just arbitrarily chosen one). I was smack dab in the middle of the two most perfect cities to narrate the character of Japan. Osaka reflects the new, fast, Westernized aspect of Japan and her culture. Kyoto reveals the depth of the history of the nation and imbues any visitor with awe at the simplicity and beauty of what Japan became as its many early cultures united into one nation.

Katano-shi, my homestay city, was considered a country town relative to where I went to school, in Hirakata-shi. At least, that is what I was told by the other gaijin and my Japanese friends. You could have fooled me. On my bike ride from my homestay to the train station I passed at least one 6 story apartment building, not to mention the shopping areas that were only moments from my homestay. Compared to where I’d lived and worked in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Virginia, I lived in a densely populated community while in Japan. However, relative to Japan, I did eventually realize that my homestay town was relatively rural. I was able to really recognize this fact when I brought a group of my friends from school to my homestay because my host parents wanted to meet them. My friends were in awe of the empty city blocks we passed as we neared my homestay. They were thrilled to see a whole block devoted to growing cosmos flowers. We even went into the field to take pictures just because it was such a novelty for my friends. They were amazed to see rice growing in what seemed, even to them, a city. I realized how lucky I was to live in this town that was so different from what most people think of as a Japanese city (even if I didn’t realize it until near the end of my time there).

My host family took me on a road trip, about half-way into my almost 4 month experience of Japan. They wanted to take me to a famous pottery museum, which was on the way to the home of my host mother’s sister. I was certainly excited about the trip because I had absolutely no idea where we were going or what we would do. We even took Fu-chan, the family golden retriever. I was amazed by the home of my “aunt.” It seemed twice as big as my homestay, which I thought was quite large relative to my friend’s homestays. The biggest shock for me upon arriving at my “aunt’s” house, though, was that they actually had a lawn. It was relatively small, but it was the largest one I’d seen since arriving in Japan. We enjoyed a picnic lunch and spent a few hours visiting. The majority of our time, though, was spent on the road. During the trip, we stopped at the ceramics museum and viewed wonderful pieces. My host father and host sisters also walked around the school near the museum and sneaked peeks into empty classrooms. The “sneaking” was a special insight for me into my host father’s playful nature. After that trip I always felt very easy and happy around him!

My friends and I spent one day traveling on the train between Osaka and Kyoto. Without realizing it we were able to observe some tremendous differences between old and new because of the proximity of those cities to one another. We spent time in each city, wandering, drinking in the sights, and confirming the feeling of time and change. Without such a perfectly located homestay, I cannot imagine having the same cultural opportunities I was able to feast upon while in Japan. Altogether, my experiences in Japan were some of the richest of my life.

Really See the Sights

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

I think travel abroad tends to create feelings that overwhelm most people when they make their first trip away from home. Certainly, I fit within that category in this instance. If I had any expectations at all, they were few, limited, and unclear. All in all, I believe the lack of expectation benefited me more than anything else. However, because I’d really made few plans and didn’t have a clue what to expect, I wasn’t able to completely take advantage of my time in Japan.

One particular outing taught me some wonderful lessons about travel in a foreign land, and about myself. I’d never really used public transportation at home. In fact, I didn’t have experience getting from one place to another in any way other than under my own power – either walking, biking, or driving. So, that certainly played a part in how ludicrous my outing turned out.

I wanted to get from my homestay in Katano-shi to a shopping area in Hirakata-shi, but I’d not really traveled anywhere other than home to school and back again. The first time I had to go from my homestay to my school I was a bundle of fear and nerves. I was certain I would get lost and never make it to school. My host sister was supposed to take me all the way to school, or so I thought, but she only took me as far as one of the main train stations because her destination was in a different direction than mine. She did point the way to the correct platform. However, the verbal directions she gave were entirely undecipherable to me and my confusion over the language caused me to distrust the body language of the situation. When I finally arrived at the platform to which my host sister directed me, and on which I thought I was supposed to be, I looked around and literally jumped for joy when I saw a familiar face. I ran up to the owner of the familiar face and tackle-hugged him. He was another student, an acquaintance, I’d met during my week-long stay on Gaidai’s campus. I know, for a fact, that he thought I was absolutely nuts because he told me so. But after I was able to calm down and tell him why I’d greeted him that way, he laughed and we made our way to school together.

Back to the main story: So, I made my way from Katano-shi to a train station in Hirakata-shi. I was determined to explore. So, I took my itty-bitty planner (which I’d purchased at my school book store because it was just completely adorable) and used the pen that came with it to begin mapping out my journey. Remember, please, I’d never used buses, trains, or subways prior to this “adventure.” I made a mark on a blank page in my planner and wrote a little note that described the spot as the one I would need to return to in order to go back home. I walked maybe 50 feet and noticed a store that could act as a good landmark, so I added a mark to the picture. I was determined to create an accurate map so I could safely return home. I made my way, about 50 feet at a time, in this manner.

My map became quite detailed and I felt more and more confident as time progressed. Keep in mind that I’m spending the majority of the time during this “adventure” with my nose pointed toward my planner as I furiously make marks and write notes beside them. I was that completely and utterly afraid of getting lost! About an hour later I looked up, ready to add some more detail to my map. Well, actually, it was probably closer to two hours, but I really want to make myself sound less ridiculous. I looked at the scene in front of me, looked at my map, looked at the landscape and the way the street curved in front of me, looked at my map, and then laughed out loud. I immediately glanced all around to see if anyone was taking note of this crazy gaijin. I sighed in relief because it didn’t seem that anyone was paying me any mind. I contained my giggles, but couldn’t help laughing internally and smiling hugely because on my map it was extremely apparent that I had made a very detailed drawing of an “adventurous” circle! I could have most certainly completed the same circle in less than 15 minutes if I hadn’t been such a scared-y pants!

I learned a lot from that silly walk. I learned that I travel much more easily with companions in a country whose language I do not understand. I also learned that so often we really just need to enjoy what is all around rather than worry about keeping track of it. The saying, “It’s the journey that counts, not the destination,” expresses well what I learned from my too safe “adventure.” I should have just wandered rather than making sure to keep track of each step and each aspect of the place I was trying to wander. I was just too afraid of being lost. I learned that being lost isn’t such a horrible thing when you’re exploring. This story, admittedly, is also an insight into the anality of my personality. I do believe that fear keeps us safe, but when you’re exploring a new place fear can really hinder more than help! I did manage to get over my fears to some extent during the rest of that trip. I actually walked around and looked as I went instead of writing every detail down. However, if you prefer not to take such risks, make sure you use another trick I learned for safe wandering: turn around periodically so that the return trip looks familiar – otherwise you’ll always feel lost!